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Aretha Franklin stirred America's soul

At a time of rebellion and division in the 1960s, Aretha Franklin's hit records were a musical union of the church and the secular, man and woman, black and white, North and South, East and West. Ms. Franklin's legacy spans a half century and dozens of hits showing her sophisticated and eccentric taste. 

Matt Rourke/AP, File
Soul singer Aretha Franklin poses for a portrait in Philadelphia on July 26, 2010. Ms. Franklin died Thursday, Aug. 16, 2018 at her home in Detroit. She was 76.

Aretha Franklin, the undisputed "Queen of Soul" who sang with matchless style on such classics as "Think," ''I Say a Little Prayer," and her signature song, "Respect," and stood as a cultural icon around the globe, has died at age 76 from advanced pancreatic cancer.

Publicist Gwendolyn Quinn tells The Associated Press through a family statement that Ms. Franklin died Thursday at 9:50 a.m. at her home in Detroit.

"In one of the darkest moments of our lives, we are not able to find the appropriate words to express the pain in our heart. We have lost the matriarch and rock of our family. The love she had for her children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and cousins knew no bounds," the family wrote.

The statement continued:

"We have been deeply touched by the incredible outpouring of love and support we have received from close friends, supporters and fans all around the world. Thank you for your compassion and prayers. We have felt your love for Aretha and it brings us comfort to know that her legacy will live on. As we grieve, we ask that you respect our privacy during this difficult time."

Funeral arrangements will be announced in the coming days.

Franklin, who had battled undisclosed health issues in recent years, had in 2017 announced her retirement from touring.

A professional singer and accomplished pianist by her late teens, a superstar by her mid-20s, Franklin had long ago settled any arguments over who was the greatest popular vocalist of her time. Her gifts, natural and acquired, were a multi-octave, mezzo-soprano, gospel passion and training worthy of a preacher's daughter, taste sophisticated and eccentric, and the courage to channel private pain into liberating song.

She recorded hundreds of tracks and had dozens of hits over the span of a half century, including 20 that reached No. 1 on the R&B charts. But her reputation was defined by an extraordinary run of top 10 smashes in the late 1960s, from the morning-after bliss of "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," to the wised-up "Chain of Fools" to her unstoppable call for "Respect."

Her records sold millions of copies and the music industry couldn't honor her enough. Franklin won 18 Grammy awards. In 1987, she became the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Clive Davis, the music mogul who brought her to Arista Records and helped revive her career in the 1980s, said he was "devastated" by her death.

"She was truly one of a kind. She was more than the Queen of Soul. She was a national treasure to be cherished by every generation throughout the world," he said in a statement. "Apart from our long professional relationship, Aretha was my friend. Her loss is deeply profound and my heart is full of sadness."

Fellow singers bowed to her eminence and political and civic leaders treated her as a peer. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was a longtime friend, and she sang at the dedication of King's memorial in 2011. She performed at the inaugurations of former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, and at the funeral for civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks. Mr. Clinton gave Franklin the National Medal of Arts. Former President George W. Bush awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, in 2005.

Franklin's best-known appearance with a president was in January 2009, when she sang "My Country 'tis of Thee" at former President Barack Obama's inauguration. She wore a gray felt hat with a huge, Swarovski rhinestone-bordered bow that became an Internet sensation and even had its own website. In 2015, she brought Mr. Obama and others to tears with a triumphant performance of "Natural Woman" at a Kennedy Center tribute to the song's co-writer, Carole King.

Franklin endured the exhausting grind of celebrity and personal troubles dating back to childhood. She was married from 1961 to 1969 to her manager, Ted White, and their battles are widely believed to have inspired her performances on several songs, including "(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You've Been Gone," ''Think," and her heartbreaking ballad of despair, "Ain't No Way." The mother of two sons by age 16 (she later had two more), she was often in turmoil as she struggled with her weight, family problems, and financial predicaments. Her best known producer, Jerry Wexler, nicknamed her "Our Lady of Mysterious Sorrows."

Of Franklin's dozens of hits, none was linked more firmly to her than the funky, horn-led march "Respect" and its spelled out demand for "R-E-S-P-E-C-T."

Writing in Rolling Stone magazine in 2004, Mr. Wexler said: "It was an appeal for dignity combined with a blatant lubricity. There are songs that are a call to action. There are love songs. There are sex songs. But it's hard to think of another song where all those elements are combined."

Franklin had decided she wanted to "embellish" the R&B song written by Otis Redding, whose version had been a modest hit in 1965, Wexler said.

"When she walked into the studio, it was already worked out in her head," the producer wrote. "Otis came up to my office right before 'Respect' was released, and I played him the tape. He said, 'She done took my song.' He said it benignly and ruefully. He knew the identity of the song was slipping away from him to her."

In a 2004 interview with Florida's St. Petersburg Times, Franklin was asked whether she sensed in the '60s that she was helping change popular music.

"Somewhat, certainly with 'Respect,' that was a battle cry for freedom and many people of many ethnicities took pride in that word," she answered. "It was meaningful to all of us."

In 1968, Franklin was pictured on the cover of Time magazine and had more than 10 Top 20 hits in 1967 and 1968. At a time of rebellion and division, Franklin's records were a musical union of the church and the secular, man and woman, black and white, North and South, East and West. They were produced and engineered by New Yorkers Wexler and Tom Dowd, arranged by Turkish-born Arif Mardin, and backed by an interracial assembly of top session musicians based mostly in Alabama.

Fame never eclipsed Franklin's charitable works, or her loyalty to Detroit.

Franklin sang the national anthem at Super Bowl in her hometown in 2006, after grousing that Detroit's rich musical legacy was being snubbed when the Rolling Stones were chosen as halftime performers.

"I didn't think there was enough [Detroit representation] by any means," she said. "And it was my feeling, 'How dare you come to Detroit, a city of legends – musical legends, plural – and not ask one or two of them to participate?' That's not the way it should be."

Franklin did most of her extensive touring by bus after Mr. Redding's death in a 1967 plane crash, and a rough flight to Detroit in 1982 left her with a fear of flying that anti-anxiety tapes and classes couldn't help. She told Time in 1998 that the custom bus was a comfortable alternative: "You can pull over, go to Red Lobster. You can't pull over at 35,000 feet."

She only released a few albums over the past two decades, including "A Rose is Still a Rose," which featured songs by Sean "Diddy" Combs, Lauryn Hill, and other contemporary artists, and "So Damn Happy," for which Franklin wrote the gratified title ballad. Franklin's autobiography, "Aretha: From These Roots," came out in 1999, when she was in her 50s. But she always made it clear that her story would continue.

"Music is my thing, it's who I am. I'm in it for the long run," she told The Associated Press in 2008. "I'll be around, singing, 'What you want, baby I got it.' Having fun all the way."

This story was reported by The Associated Press. AP National Writer Hillel Italie in New York contributed to this report.

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